Gender equality and the world of work

Photograph: Aleksandar Nakic/Getty Images

Alexandra Topping presents an admirable evidence-based analysis of the effect of government policy on parental leave for newborns (Journal, 11 February), and says that “until a progressive government does step up, companies and individuals will have to kickstart a cultural change” in working practices.

I would like to expand on the cultural change she refers to. Working practices in the UK need much more of an overhaul to address the gender pay gap: the key is to make these genuinely family-friendly. The structures and patterns in the world of work are still manmade, stemming from the postwar era of man as the breadwinner and woman as the homemaker. Studies have shown that flexible working hours, job shares and even the reduction of the working week all increase productivity, but preferential attitudes to “full-time” work still hold sway. This is what militates against economic equality for women with children in the current cultural climate.

Ms Topping does mention how shared parental leave followed by free universal childcare is the optimum model. With family-friendly policies in place this should be a sine qua non, as should flexible working practices for both men and women. So shared parental leave from a child’s birth is a good start, but working practices and attitudes need to change too.
Patricia Murphy
Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthenshire

• Next to your article about Finland’s pioneering parental leave polices is an editorial about mental health and the growing need for well-trained psychological intervention. Nowhere does Alexandra Topping make a connection between the two. While shared parental leave may be a desirable goal, it should be remembered that separation from a newborn baby is incredibly painful for many mothers. I well remember the first theatre outing when our firstborn was six months old. Being away from him was so painful that we left in the interval. He had remained fast asleep, only waking for a feed, but even now, 52 years later, I remember the pain of separation.
Alison Watson

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